By Mark Goodman
April 08, 1991 12:00 PM

So many tempests in one royal teapot. First came tales of Fergie’s partying with Texas playboy Steve Wyatt, then the revelation that Princess Diana’s brother, Viscount Althorp, had enjoyed a one-night tryst with a cartoonist in Paris. Of late, even Di’s obvious charms have caused a spot of bother: Her longtime friend Life Guards Maj. Jamie Hewitt, 32, soon to be home from the war in the Middle East, has long paid Di very close attention. Close enough, it seems, to have once prompted the major to break a lunch date with his steady girlfriend, Emma Stewardson, 29, and call on Di at her country home at Highgrove in Gloucestershire. The trouble was, Stewardson, who lives just down the road from Highgrove, saw her “too busy” beau wheel out of Diana’s drive in his T.V.R. sports coupé. Stewardson then flew off to Kenya to sulk and soak in the waters off Mombasa—but not before sniping to the press that her pocket had been royally picked.

Di’s tea with the major seems minor, however, compared with recent events. Last week, in a copyrighted story, the Daily Express, a London tabloid, broke the news that Capt. Mark Phillips, 42, Princess Anne’s estranged husband, is facing a paternity suit on the other side of the world. New Zealander Heather Tonkin, 37, a blond art teacher (and, like Phillips, an equestrian), claims that Phillips is the father of her 5-year-old daughter, Felicity. Tonkin has filed suit for maintenance in Auckland’s Otahuhu District Court. Her abiding concern, she says, is her daughter’s future. “My ambition is to get Mark’s public acceptance of her.” Tonkin told the Express, “and to be able to enter his name on her birth certificate.” Shades of Merrie Olde England and the House of Plantagenet, wherein illegitimate royal offspring abounded!

Paternity suits against the famous are always suspect; Tonkin’s case, however, is not easy to dismiss. Although Phillips has never publicly acknowledged paternity, he has, for five years, made quarterly payments to her, totaling $80,000, through an agent in Sydney, Australia. The agent, James Erskine, regional director of International Management Group and a close personal friend of Phillips’s, says the fees were for “equestrian consultancy.”

The news broke when Tonkin apparently became angry over a magazine article suggesting that Phillips might receive as much as $2 million after his eventual divorce from Princess Anne. After all, Phillips does have a substantial claim, if only for his efforts in building Gatcombe Park, the royal estate, into an attractive equestrian center. In any case, Tonkin sold her story to the Express for $180,000.

Her account of her relationship with-Phillips goes thusly: They met in November 1983, when she attended his riding clinic in New Zealand. They met again the following year when Phillips attended a party for one of the country’s Olympic riders. Flattered when he invited her to his hotel for what she assumed would be a small party, Tonkin says, she arrived to find him alone. She says she was “infatuated” and indeed spent the night with Phillips. Her diary entry for that night, Nov. 20, 1984, is filled’ with kisses formed into the shape of a horseshoe.

A different sort of entry was recorded on Dec. 18, when Tonkin tested positive for pregnancy. According to Tonkin, she telephoned Phillips at Gatcombe Park to tell him the news. She says that he urged her not to have the child, but that she in turn assured Phillips she could manage without him. On Aug. 10, 1985, Felicity Bridget, later nicknamed Bunny, was born. Tonkin claims she confronted Phillips with the news after a speaking engagement during his next trip to Auckland, but that nothing was resolved. When she later telephoned him again at Gatcombe, this time seeking a subsidy for the child, she says that Phillips told her he would “arrange for a friend to call me and make arrangements.” Five days later she got a call from Erskine, who subsequently flew to New Zealand and met with Tonkin to arrange the “equestrian consultancy” payments.

The problem with that arrangement, Tonkin now says, is that fees for horse chats can be concluded at the payer’s pleasure; child support cannot. (Even so, Tonkin is on rocky legal ground. New Zealand cannot compel any nonnational, be he prince, consort or commoner, to pay support unless he sets foot on New Zealand soil. Tonkin, however, has the right to file suit in England as well.) In any event, when she read the story of Phillips’s projected divorce settlement, she contacted Erskine to seek a substantial cash settlement from Phillips. Following lawyers’ instructions, Tonkin says, she tape-recorded their conversations. According to her, a particularly nasty exchange concluded with Erskine telling her: “If you want to have a barney [brawl], he’s going to deny it…. I will make life a bloody misery for you…. I know who’s going to win because I know where the clout is. The clout is with him.”

Thus rebuffed, Tonkin chose to press her claim in court—even as she cried in the Express that “nothing can compensate for the tears I have cried while trying to plan for Bunny’s future, when at any moment I could find myself penniless.”

Tonkin’s claims of penury are as questionable as Phillips’s clout. The Express has thus far successfully managed to preserve its exclusive access to Tonkin by placing security guards on patrol around her mock-Tudor home in the village of Whitford (pop. 200), near Auckland. Tonkin has taken leave from her job as an art teacher at local Howick College and sequestered herself on her 50-acre property, where horses gambol and peacocks parade on the rolling lawns. The daughter of two prominent physicians, Tonkin drives a $60,000 Mercedes convertible, owns a racehorse called Just the Bee’s Knees and employs a staff to run her stables. Says one neighbor: “How she’s got the nerve to stand up and declare she’s broke is beyond most of us.”

According to a friend, Jill Smith, “Heather’s always been a girl who knew how to have a good time.” Affectionately dubbed the Wicked Witch of Whitford at school for her straggly tresses, her passion for stray cats and her rambunctious amours, Tonkin once told Smith, “I’m looking for the right stud.”

Now that she has a foal, Tonkin is also reputed to be an intensely protective mother. Last year she removed Bunny from nearby Brookby School, says the principal, because the school finally couldn’t agree to all the safety rules and regulations Tonkin sought to impose. Said a neighbor: “She won’t even take Bunny to the letter box for fear she’ll catch a cold.” Indeed, the neighbor added, Tonkin retreated further and further into a private domestic world after Bunny was born, taking the little girl everywhere with her, refusing to let her out of her sight. Until recently, Tonkin also refused to reveal who Bunny’s father was.

Still, a friend and neighbor, Michelle Godsiff, told London’s Sunday Mirror: “I guessed who it was immediately. She had books about him [Phillips] and would show me pictures of him riding. Then last year,” Godsiff went on, “I started a paternity suit against the father of my own daughter. Heather was really interested and wanted to know all about the DNA testing and what I would have to go through, and how much maintenance I would get.” Godsiff added. “Now she’s come out and named Mark Phillips, and she’s not the sort of person to lie. I spoke to her, and she’s on the verge of collapse. She should be on sedatives.”

Captain Phillips could probably use a few painkillers himself. Returning to Gatwick airport from Toronto the morning the story broke, he brushed past reporters and into his waiting silver Land-Rover to speed back to Gatcombe Park, where he still resides, at Queen Elizabeth’s sufferance, in a cottage on the grounds. How long that sufferance will obtain and how Phillips’s current troubles may affect his upcoming divorce settlement (currently being dealt with by lawyers) are hot topics of tabloid speculation. Says one well-connected royal watcher, “Mark has had it. There will be no more invitations to Buckingham Palace—and Anne’s hand will be strengthened significantly. This is all the excuse she needed to get Mark out of Gatcombe.”

Mark Goodman, Terry Smith in London